Eberron - Scarred Elf Campaign

You Always Need A Map

One of the impediments I encounter to playing more frequently is the amount of time it takes to draw decent maps.

I had thought that the issue arose from the highly tactical combat engine associated with 4th edition D&D. Pretty much every scene in every published adventure has a – usually small – battle map, in full colour, with most of the relevant details placed right on the map. These maps are usually about 8 × 10 squares, or about double that size if large creatures are involved, and involve a lot of heavily contrived terrain features.

For a number of reasons, those maps don’t sit well with me, and don’t suit the way my group plays the game. To start with, they are not nearly large enough. My players are not content to be narratively railroaded into the “start” position on the map: they want to move cautiously through any area, and control their approach.

Moreover, battles often spill off the edge of the map, into corridors in a dungeon, or into the wild world in a town or the wilderness. NPC’s try to run for reinforcements, or PCs need to make a strategic withdrawal (and many monsters won’t stop at the door in pursuing them). When I play in my friend Brent’s campaign, maps that are 100 or 200 squares on a side are not uncommon, and we often use the whole map.

In addition, the maps need a fair number of terrain features to make them interesting, and for my own verisimilitude those features have to be naturalistic. Many 4e published maps are filled with contrived obstacles like acid pits, lava pools, and the like. Moreover, many of the mundane features are inappropriately scaled, like roads and bridges that are too narrow for carts, or rooms that are too large for their purpose and difficult to fill with appropriate furniture.

I run my games in MapTools, which theoretically allows for infinitely large maps. That part suits my purposes just fine, but drawing those maps takes a lot of time. Dungeons are not bad, since there are inherent constraints. I can put an entire dungeon level on a MapTools map. Once the tokens are placed it is obvious what rooms will naturally support each other for reinforcements, and if a battle spills out into a corridor, I know exactly what that corridor looks like.

But wilderness encounters or even urban encounters are not so easy. Wilderness encounters require the placement of interesting terrain features organically over a large area, and urban encounters require mapping out a significant portion of a neighborhood (to say nothing of if the PCs decide to randomly look for a building to duck into). That is a lot of work. I’ve begun making large wilderness and city geomorphs to mitigate the problem of running off the edge of the map in play, but city geomorphs in particular take time to produce and most of them are largely devoid of detail because I just don’t have time for it.

(Wilderness geomprphs are easier because Wolph42’s Bag of Tricks has a nice randomizer for MapTool that lets me populate an area with trees and terrain features).

So I have been looking for shortcuts for a while. Most of my players are still suffering from post-killer-GM-stress-disorder, and entirely distrust that the world that is described by the GM will have any relationship to the world that is actually going on in the GM’s head. They assume that at any moment combat can break out, and at least one of them feels a need to have a good idea of the physical layout for even the most innocuous social interactions.

This was not an issue thirty years ago, when we were playing as teenagers. By and large we played in dungeons of one sort or another, which are much easier to manage. We also had a lot of time on our hands, more than enough to draw lots and lots of detailed maps.

But the other reason we didn’t run into the problem was that we did not have the sort of unconstrained play that I am currently going for. For example, right now, Koln is in a small city, and he knows his sister has been kidnapped and is being held somewhere in that city. He has several clues about her whereabouts, but how he chooses to interpret those clues and where he goes for information is entirely up to him.

And because Koln can go anywhere in the city, and talk to anybody, and fight them or chase them or run away from them, it makes it very hard to plan encounters and have a battle map ready for each one. I really needed to find a way to abstract things. But now I am back to detailing my geomorphs. And, sadly, this is a unique city and I won’t be able to use what I create here anywhere else.

Since it appears that I am not going to be able to abstract encounters, and am going to need to detail every street, plaza, market and throneroom the PCs could possibly enter, I am moving to Plan “B”: how to simplify my maps and make them more quickly. But perhaps that is a topic for another post.



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